The joint United Nations-African Union force set up to stem the violence in Darfur took the reigns today from the existing AU operation in the war-torn Sudanese region, but Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that critical gaps remain in what will be the world body’s largest peacekeeping operation at full strength.
The official transfer of authority from the AU Mission in Sudan (AMIS) to the hybrid force – with AU troops exchanging their green headgear for the UN’s blue beret – took place at a ceremony in the North Darfur capital of El Fasher, the headquarters of the new UN-AU Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).
Authorized by the Security Council in July, UNAMID will have some 20,000 troops and more than 6,000 police and civilian staff at full deployment. Currently, there are more than 9,000 uniformed personnel on the ground, including 7,000 troops and 1,200 police serving with the AMIS, as well as UN soldiers and police officers serving as part of the UN’s “heavy” and “light support packages” deployed to support AMIS over the last year.
In a message to the handover ceremony, Mr. Ban emphasized the need for troop and police contributing countries to deploy their personnel as quickly as possible. “If we are to have a real impact on the situation on the ground within the first half of 2008, these deployments must happen far more swiftly than they have done so far,” the Secretary-General said in a statement read out by Joint UN-AU Special Representative and Head of UNAMID Rodolphe Adada.
Mr. Ban added that critical gaps remained in the UNAMID force as no pledges have been received so far for ground and transportation units and aviation assets, which are essential to the mobility of the force and its ability to adequately protect the civilian population in the vast area of Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have been killed and another 2.2 million forced to flee their homes since fighting began in 2003 between Government forces and rebel groups.
While noting that today marks “a new and profoundly challenging chapter in the history of United Nations peacekeeping,” Mr. Ban stressed that UNAMID’s deployment will only be as effective as the political process it is mandated to support.
He urged all parties to cease violence and come to the negotiating table to settle their differences. “Only after an inclusive peace agreement is reached will the outstanding grievances of all parties be addressed, and the requirements for a lasting solution to the crisis put in place,” he said.
Echoing Mr. Ban’s comments, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Sudan stressed that comprehensive peace can only be achieved when all parts of the country have achieved peace and harmony. “We should all work towards a prosperous, peaceful and united Sudan,” Ashraf Qazi stated, calling on all parties to the Darfur conflict to shun violence and participate in the peace process for the sake of the future generations.
Efforts on the political front are being led by the UN and AU Special Envoys for Darfur, Jan Eliasson and Salim Ahmed Salim, who have been pursuing a political settlement to the crisis through negotiations aimed at a achieving a peace agreement between the Government of Sudan and the Darfurian movements.
Meanwhile, in a statement released on Sunday, the Chairman of the Darfur Ceasefire Commission, Gen. Martin Luther Agwai, noted with great concern the arrest of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) representative to the Commission, Major General Bashir, and five other JEM members on Sunday in El Fasher.
Despite the efforts of the AMIS leadership to prevent the arrest, Government authorities stormed the premises housing the JEM representative early Sunday morning.
Gen. Agwai has been in contact with both JEM – one of Darfur’s many rebel groups – and the Government of Sudan to de-escalate the tensions and ensure the safe release of the JEM representatives.